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December 16, 2012, Sunday

The EU-Turkey debacle -- a never-ending saga

In 2005, Turkey and the EU started accession negotiations. While these negotiations were supposed to lead to full membership, they have so far only led to a dead-end as political opposition to Turkey’s membership, the Cyprus problem and Turkey’s failure to comply with some key EU demands have sunk the talks.

It is still possible to change gears and reverse out of the dead-end if the necessary political will can be mustered. As was recognized by EU foreign ministers at a recent General Affairs Council in Brussels on Dec. 10, Turkey is an important partner, but while the EU wants Turkey with it, it seems increasingly obvious it does not want it within it.

Still, there was some anticipation this foreign ministers’ gathering could result in new steps to break the deadlock. However, after reading the conclusions, it is clear this did not happen and there was no fresh thinking. No doubt EU leaders have squeezed their brain cells so much over the eurozone debt crisis there is little left for any other matters. Nevertheless, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, ever the optimist, tweeted that he expected more positive conclusions on Turkey’s accession process in 2013 than in previous years. Given that nothing happened in 2012, other than Turkey snubbing the Cypriot presidency, this may not be too difficult to achieve.

Meanwhile, a recent report by Boğaziçi University showed that the number of Turks who now support Turkish membership in the EU is down to 47.1 percent, although some 51 percent said that if a referendum were held on membership tomorrow they would vote yes. Interestingly, only 46 percent of Turks consider Turkey to be part of Europe; the figure was 70 percent in 2003. Some 64 percent believed that membership in the EU would damage religious values in the country.

The conclusions affirmed the important regional role Turkey plays, including in its wider neighborhood. The EU would like to intensify its political dialogue with Turkey on foreign policy issues of common interest, including in North Africa, Syria, the Middle East, Gulf, Western Balkans, South Caucasus, Afghanistan/Pakistan and even the Horn of Africa. The EU would welcome Turkey developing its foreign policy in a way that complements that of the EU, progressively aligning with EU policies and positions. According to Turkey’s 2012 Progress Report, Ankara aligned itself, when invited, with 37 out of 70 relevant EU declarations and council decisions (53 percent). This represents a drop to some years ago, when it was around 75 percent.

The ministers raised concerns and criticized the Turkish government again over the issue of continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms and rights, particularly on freedom of expression and of the media. The number of legal cases against writers, journalists, academics and human rights defenders as well as the frequent banning of websites is of significance concern. This sorry situation damages Turkey’s image globally and has awarded Turkey the status of only having a partially free media and Internet, according to Freedom House. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 232 journalists are currently imprisoned around the world, with Turkey being the worst offender. In its Dec. 11 report, the US-based media watchdog said 49 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, compared with 45 in Iran and 32 in China. Over three-quarters of the imprisoned journalists have not been convicted of a crime and are being held as they await the resolution of their cases.

Moreover, about 70 percent of Turkey’s jailed journalists are Kurdish, charged with aiding terrorism by covering the views and activities of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). While this situation is wholly unacceptable, international concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears, with Turkey’s geostrategic importance seemingly taking priority over everything else.

The Turkey-EU story will continue to unfold in 2013, which marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Association Agreement between Turkey and the EU. However, unless there is a significant change of dynamic, for example a change of position by France or (very unlikely) a breakthrough on Cyprus, 2013 could be the year when this seemingly never-ending membership saga actually ends.

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